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The Gathering VIII

Planning an event during Japan’s fickle autumn weather is no easy task, and with a typhoon threatening to derail this year’s gathering, we all keep our eyes glued to the capricious predictions of the meteorologists. As the storm edges toward the archipelago, it becomes apparent that Nagano will be spared the heavy rain and winds predicted to batter the Boso Peninsula, so we move forth with preparations for the 8th annual Hiking in Japan gathering.

This time around, we head back to Togakushi, the location of the 3rd gathering and a splendid volcanic plateau jutting up from the river banks of Nagano city. I head up by train after work on Friday evening, arriving at Nagano station shortly before 10pm for a quick catch-up with my friend Trane before checking into my hotel for a short bout of sleep. The next morning, Miguel, who has just completed an exhausting overnight bus journey from Kobe, stumbles into the hotel lobby. I stumble down the elevator myself, grasping an unsteady cup of matcha, forcing some caffeine into my body in an effort to shake off the drowsiness. Paul from Hike and Bike Japan soon pulls up in his car and the three of us make our way along wet roads to the campground.

Rie and James have already started their climb up to Takazuma, so Miguel, Paul and I pick out a quiet area of the grassy campground and set up our tents. Miguel’s shelter is one-part tent, two-parts coffin but it does provide necessary cover from the elements. Paul’s is a more conventional set up, and since I’ve opted for just a lightweight tarp I stow away my excess gear in his tent before the two of us head to the Iizuna trailhead. Miguel stays behind to watch over camp, settling in for a nap accompanied by the soothing sounds of birdsong.

Iizuna’s track cuts directly through the Togakushi Eastern Campground, following a forest road before darting up into a thick forest of planted Japanese larch. Paul and I catch up since our late-July meeting in Osaka. Relating stories of a previous trail running race along our very same ascent path, we rise up away from the valley to a small marshland on the edge of the ski resort. Late summer flowers bloom along the side of the trail, which the grasslands take on their customary golden hues of autumn. A short climb later, we top out on Mt Menō, the first peak on Iizuna’s summit ridge of rotund volcanic cones. By now the clouds have closed in, depositing misty moisture on our eyebrows as we turn our eyes towards the summit buried somewhere in the murk.

The two of us make good work on the ridge, reaching the broad summit plateau in unexpected sunshine. We settle onto an improvised set of oblong boulders and share snacks and stories with a jovial group of local hikers. An elementary school soccer team lurks nearby, eavesdropping on our conversation in hopes of grabbing a snippet or two of free English vocabulary. After a quick summit photo, we drop off the northern face of the peak to a small saddle ablaze with autumn foliage before ascending a short distance to Iizuna shrine. From here, it’s a steep drop back to the forest, with Paul demonstrating his mountain sprinting skills down some truly tricky terrain. We slow down the pace once back in the treeline and continue sharing stories on the remainder of our loop hike back into camp.

Camp has turned into a small village, with HIJ members engaged in a variety of leisurely activities, few of which involve loitering at camp. Paul and I round up Naresh, Miguel, and Michael and head to Café Fleurir for warm pizza, tasty curry gratin, and several cups of coffee as one by one the other members of our party join us around the table. Bjorn and family have come straight from the stables after an adventurous afternoon of horse riding. John arrives after the long drive from Mt Nantai and shares stories about the infamous toll booth at the trailhead. Edward and friends also stop by briefly to say hello before ducking back into camp. I have a word with the owner about providing a candle in Naresh’s special cake – a surprise for him having recently finished climbing the Yamanashi Hyakumeizan. Follow Naresh’s blog here as he begins to tell his mountain adventures.

Bellies full, we all head back into camp to start the cooking duties. Paul starts in on the fire while Rie and James start cutting the vegetables for nabe. Bjorn and family settle into a corner of the covered kitchen to churn out another amazing bowl of guacamole. Alekh, Anna, Edward, Michael and Miguel lend a helping hand as well, shuttling ingredients between workstation and delivering prepared food to the common serving table. Naresh splits his time between the fire and kitchen, making sure everything is going according to plan and on schedule. Just as in previous gatherings, it becomes apparent that we once again have way too much food but we make a valiant effort to consume whatever is served.  Grace arrives at camp carrying her signature homemade cake – awing everyone with her baking prowess and making us full before the main dish even begins to boil.

As the first bowls of nabe come off the stove, Naresh and John have already begun roasting marshmellows for S’mores. Miguel places our framed photo of Michal closer to the fire, telling everyone about the contributions he made to the group before his untimely departure on his eternal celestial journey. Stories are told, laughs are shared, and even heated political discussions ensue but the conversation is eventually brought back to a topic we can all agree on: the beauty of Japan’s mountains.

One by one the campers drift off to sleep, some too comfy around the fire to retreat to their shelters until the embers of the campfire begin to grow dim. Mother Nature times her arrival perfectly as well, holding off on the rain until all of us have bedded down for the evening. The rain continues most of the night and slows to a drizzle as we all emerge from our cocoons.

In the filtered light of morning, the camp denizens converge on the covered kitchen area to indulge in copious cups of hot chai and an assortment of leftovers and calorie-rich muffins. Paul and James head off for a morning jog while others reluctantly discuss plans for heading back to civilization. Each year, we cram a full weekend’s worth of activities into, well, a weekend. I float the idea of perhaps trying to have next year’s gathering scheduled over a 3-day weekend, with an exciting group hike sandwiched between two nights underneath the stars. Who’s with us in 2020?

 

My first visit to Kobushi, an autumn ascent under perfect skies, is one of the highlights of my Hyakumeizan quest. Usually the rule of thumb when reclimbing the Meizan is to never re-attempt a peak you had perfect weather on the first time around. However, my return to Kobushi is for another purpose – Saitama’s highest peak.

Had I been attempting the prefectural high points during my Hyakumeizan days then I would not have needed to return. You see, Saitama’s highest mountain, Mt. Sanpō, is just 10 meters higher and a short 30-minute climb from the summit of Kobushi. Instead of the popular trail on the Yamanashi side, I start from the Nagano village of Kawakami and the idyllic surrounds of Mōkidaira trailhead.

Naresh, Alekh, and I navigate the narrow farm roads through Kawakami shortly past midnight on a calm Friday evening. The torrential rains of the previous day have given away to fair skies and a bright full moon. We park in a corner of the large parking lot and settle into a fitful sleep: Naresh pitches his tent while Alekh and I cram into the trunk of the automobile. Cars continue to trickle into the parking lot throughout the night, robbing us of a chance of uninterrupted sleep. At 5am we spring to life, fueled by the fresh cups of chai and a light breakfast of bread.

The path starts out as a gravel extension of the forest road, through a flat section of track smothered in thick moss, an homage to the wet weather that typically blankets the Oku-Chichibu highlands. Thick clouds move swiftly through the strong gusts pushing through the troposphere, the last remnants of the typhoon now battering the east coast of Hokkaido. The muted morning light brings out the verdant greenery of the primeval forests – we point our lenses in all directions in order to capture the sheer beauty of the place.

We soon reach a junction for a trail that heads to Jūmonji-tōge, an alternative finish point should we choose to do the full 18km loop hike. We continue straight, sticking to the right bank of the swift-flowing waters of the Chikuma river, mesmerized by the crystal clear water and hypnotic hissing as the river pushes past large boulders and twigs. This is easily one of Japan’s most pristine sections of river, with absolutely no sign of concrete nor any dam intrusions to its natural flow. A pair of fishers wade in the river, casting their bait in search of succulent sweetfish.

The track is clearly marked and easy to follow as the three of us push on in unison, slowly upward toward the source of the river. Parts of the route remind me of virgin swaths of the Minami Alps, dotted as they are in a twisted network of larch, spruce and hemlock, all rising upward towards the bright sunlight now beginning to pierce the clouds above. Most hikers approach Kobushi from Nishizawa gorge, along a long, steep spur dominated by views of Fuji and the South Alps. Having done both, I can comfortably say I prefer this hidden entrance to Kobushi’s lofty perch.

After a couple of hours we reach the source of the Chikuma river, the start of a long journey to the northeast to the Sea of Japan, 367km to be exact. Upon entering Niigata Prefecture, the river name changes to the Shinano, which many will recognize as Japan’s longest and widest river. Here, at an elevation of 2200 meters, the water trickles out of an underground stream, with a plastic cup in place so that visitors can sample the cool, refreshing water. We fill up our water bottles and settle down on a toppled tree log for a snack and a quick perusal of the map. An 8-point buck (east coast counting system for ruminant aficionados) grazes in the forest just above, oblivious to our gazing stares. Seeing such stags in the wild is a surprisingly rare sight, as most deer just stick to the twilight and dusk hours for their meals.

From here the path steepens, but after a twenty minute push we top out on the ridge, the start of familiar territory as I had traversed this exact route during my first walk along the spine of Chichibu. Turning left, we glimpse a view of the top of Fuji before reaching the edge of a landslide where the views really start to open up. Just above it, the summit of Kobushi baths in the late morning sun, hikers resting behind their wide-brim hats and ultraviolet arm sleeves. It takes just 10 minutes to reach the summit, just as the cloud begins its daily rise to blot out the views. We gaze at Fuji briefly before a few summit snapshots and an additional snack. Mt. Sanpō sits on a steep spur to the north, its bulbous form sitting backstage as a stand-in to the main star Kobushi.

The track north immediately loses altitude through a pristine primeval forest of towering conifers, the broad track lined by a carpet of healthy ferns. After bottoming out the path starts the long, somewhat steep, climb to the top of  Saitama. Between gasps for breath I use the GPS to gauge progress as we top out shortly before noon. In a celebratory mood, Naresh boils water for chai as we eat a filling lunch while admiring the abundant 6-legged creatures in flight. Despite the altitude, a swarm of dragonflies enjoy the wind gusts above the peak while a particularly persistent horsefly tests our patience.

Feeling energized by the caffeine, we continue walking along the ridge, committing ourselves to the full loop. It seems like a breeze on the map, but the immediate loss of 200 vertical meters to the aptly-penned shiri-iwa, or big ass rock as we have nicknamed it, has us rethinking our decision. The next hour or so on the sabre-toothed ridge is certainly kicking our ass – perhaps the real origin of the shiri-iwa nomenclature.

We take turns overtaking a trio of gung-ho hikers who share our astonishment of the undulating nature of the route. At the junction just below Bushin Shiraiwa, a craggy peak now off limits to hikers, we pause to catch our breath and wipe the sweat from our brows. Naresh is starting to feel the contours in his knees, so as he straps on the knee braces we look over the remaining stretch of trek – just one peak separates ourselves from Jūmonji-tōge, a peak by the name of Oyama.

Oyama, as it turns out, lives up to its ‘big mountain’ moniker. While the climb is short but steep, the descent along the northern face is adorned with more chains than Flavor Flav, a tricky ordeal on weary legs. We lower ourselves gently down the near-vertical cliffs and finally reach the mountain pass and hut just before my bowels explode in a fit of rage. I had been holding back the inevitable ever since summiting Sanpō, and the 200-yen tip charge for the western-style toilet is perhaps my wisest investment of the day.

Worn out but by no means exhausted, the three of us once again garner up the energy for the final descent of the day. Compelled by a desire to reach the car, the pace is swift yet unhurried, and upon reaching the shores of the Chikuma river can we once again smile at the marathon effort required to scale Saitama’s highest peak. Most hikers break this loop up into two days by overnighting on the mountain, a wise choice considering our battered state.

With peak #45 safely off the list, I can now turn my attention to the mighty mountains of Hokuriku for the final duo of peaks on the highest prefectural 47 list.

 

 

This is part of an ongoing series that will take you through the steps of publishing a hiking guidebook. 

Now that all of the major issues are now taken care of, the book is passed off to the designers for layout. This is the first (and only chance) we have to see the final book copy before it is sent off to print. While it is truly exciting to finally see how the book will actually look, it is quite stressful to be send a 400-page pdf file with a tight deadline to check each and every page for errors.

We are given just 10 days to read through the entire book and check for typos and other design issues. It is a sleepless week of fine-tooth combing. The next time we will see the book is after the book comes off the printing press. In an ideal world, we would be given two “drafts” or final checks, with about a week in between so the designers can pick up our changes. As it stands, we can only cross our fingers that our final notes and suggestions are picked up before the book goes to print.

 

This is part of an ongoing series that will take you through the steps of publishing our hiking guidebook

After the copy-editing is finished with Georgia, the book goes back to Cicerone and on to the galley proof stage. This is the first chance we have to see how the book will look with the photos and maps added. It’s basically set up as an A4-sized document, and again we are asked to mark up the pdf document using Acrobat Reader DC. The 300-page document takes a while for Tom and I to carefully examine, and we take turns marking it up since we need to submit just one document, so we use a shared folder in Dropbox to accomplish our tasks.

Editing is done through Acrobat Reader markups

It’s about a month between the two stages, so we have a chance to take a break and forget about the book while looking at the galley proofs with ‘fresh eyes’.  All in all there are about 100 issues that need to be dealt with before the book can go to layout, but the attention to detail is worth it in order to make a better finished product.

 

This is part of a ongoing series that will take you through the steps of publishing our hiking guidebook

One the appraisal and the overall issues of the guidebook were complete, our manuscript was sent to the copy-editor for a thorough check. A copy editor’s job is to prepare a manuscript for layout, but the task involves much more than just arranging a few words on a page, for the copy editor can ensure that the book flows from start-to-finish, and offers a “fresh set of eyes” to point out things that may need further elucidation.

Cicerone usually subcontracts this important task out to freelance copy editors, and our book ended up in the hands of Georgia at Laval Editing, who had previously worked on a number of other Cicerone guides. We were in good hands.

The process involved Georgia going through our manuscript with a fine-tooth comb, compiling all of her inquiries into a word file that Tom and I needed to work through, one issue at a time. It involved a lot of back-and-forth over a period of 6 weeks or so, where we turned a strong manuscript into a tight, concise fortress of a guidebook. It’s something that self-published authors don’t have at their disposal, so if you’re considering publishing your own book, hiring a copy-editor and proofreader will be an invaluable asset.

Most of our work involved highlighting and commenting on issues that Georgia brought up about each hike, a simple task made easier by utilizing the ‘track changes’ function. Some of the issues were quite simple to address, while others involved a slight rewriting of sections to make them easier to comprehend. By living here in Japan, I often times fail to elaborate upon things that first-time visitors may have trouble understanding, so providing a bit of “cultural context” hopefully ensured that our readers would avoid some common pitfalls. For instance, when we recommend that people avoid hiking during Obon, then Japan residents automatically know that it refers to the holiday in mid-August, while those coming to Japan for the first time will likely have never heard of this mid-summer ritual.

It was a pleasure working with Laval Editing, and if anyone out there is looking for someone to look over their manuscript and get some valuable feedback, I can think of no better place to seek such wisdom.

 

A Bigger Audience

I’ve been making an effort to post more on this blog, but sometimes paid writing assignments take precedence, especially when it comes to promoting the guidebook.

Please enjoy my latest article on Kita-dake for Cicerone, a bit of a hybrid between the prose of Tozan Tales and the practicality of Hiking in Japan.

This is part of a ongoing series that will take you through the steps of publishing our hiking guidebook

 

As Tom dropped the manuscript off at the Post office, we took some time to relax and forget about the book for a while. Even though our word count was too high, we knew that if Cicerone approved of the contents then there would be a way to make it work.

It took about 6 weeks for them to get back to us. Despite their initial budget to release our guide as a 288-page work, we were given the green light to expand it to 400 pages, knowing that it would both increase the cost of production and the final resale price. Tom and I were both happy with that, as anything less than a near-complete guide to the Japan Alps would be a letdown. Sure, there were some routes that needed condensing, but at least we had the space to write about almost all of the options available to avid hikers and trekkers when they hit Japan’s alpine wonderland.

The first step in the production process was an overall read through the manuscript to deal with some ‘big picture’ issues, the first of which dealt with the elevation gain and loss figures for all of our hikes/treks. All of this information needed to be included in a handy chart in Appendix A. I have never been a big fan of arithmetic, so the fact that some of our elevation gains/losses figures weren’t adding up was hardly a surprise. Luckily these were all red-flagged and corrected with a little help from the calculator.

In addition, we needed to lose a couple of treks in the book in order to come in under the page count. Fortunately, we found a great work-around that by consolidating the Daikeretto info into the Yari-ga-take hike. Originally we had planned to have the Yari-Daikiretto-Okuhotaka traverse as its own separate trek, but were able to just add a side box with a more condensed description. Likewise, the Shirane Sanzan traverse in the Minami Alps was included within the Kita-dake hike description instead of its own stand-alone trek.

With those major issues solved, it was time to move into the copy-editing phase and the ‘micro’ issues within the actual hiking descriptions.

 

 

This is part of a ongoing series that will take you through the steps of publishing our hiking guidebook

With the table of contents set, Tom and I create a 2-year schedule for finishing the manuscript. Before we could even begin to write, we needed to actually do all the ‘hands-on’ research, which involved hiking all of the routes in the book. Tom set off first and walked the Chō – Jōnen loop in the Kita Alps. As usual, he had glorious weather and even saw an Asiatic black bear (but unfortunately could not capture any photos of the elusive creature). Our best chance of getting a bear photo, we fear, will be in the local zoo.

Tom used another Cicerone guidebook to take a stab at writing up that trek for the book. He enlisted my help in writing an ‘alternative approach’ via Ichinosawa to the summit of Jōnen. It had been quite a while since I hiked that route, but I used my photos to help jog my memory and we submitted the hike to Cicerone for feedback. The comments from the editorial team were most assuring, and with that stamp of approval we could begin the writing process in earnest.

My first stab at a hike description involved Mt Senjō in the Minami Alps. I set off after the rainy season finished and managed to have somewhat acceptable weather, meaning that I didn’t get rained on and captured a few photos worthy of publication. I forwarded my write-up to Tom, who then passed it along the Cicerone for feedback.

Thus began our slow, methodical construction of the guidebook, which relied on the foundations set by our first two write-ups. We continued this process hike by hike, so by the time we completed the manuscript, the publisher had already seen it all piece by piece. After the first summer, Tom and I were actually relieved that we had another year-and-a-half to finish writing it, because it turned out to be quite a lot of work.

As we moved into the spring of 2018, I took a short trip back to the States but spent most of my time locked in a room trying to finish writing up the Minami Alps traverse. Upon returning to Japan, Tom and I looked at the submission guideline checklist in more detail. Our manuscript was nearly complete, but we still needed to compile the photos and caption list.

Cicerone were incredibly supportive during the entire process, and assured us that the April 30th deadline was for a digital copy of the completed manuscript. Photos and a printed copy of the manuscript could come a few days later if needed.

We made the deadline and sent off the package. We were relieved to get everything completed, but were a bit concerned whether our submission would be accepted or not. Instead of the agreed-upon 60,000 document, we handed-in a 90,000 word monster.

This is part of a ongoing series that will take you through the steps of publishing our hiking guidebook

To be honest, this was the part of the guidebook I was most concerned about, but not because of my camera skills. On the contrary, the biggest worry involved the weather, for as every devoted reader of this blog knows, I don’t have the best track record when it comes to clear weather. In Japanese, there is the term 雨男 (ame-otoko, or ‘rain man’). I’m pretty sure if you looked up 雨男 in your dictionary, you’ll find a picture of me standing in the pissing rain on top of a cloud-covered mountain.

So what to do? I would simply have to become a very picky mountaineer and only head to the Alps when the weather was certain to be fine, which meant keeping a very close eye on the weather forecasts and trying to find a clear-weather window. Alpine weather is notoriously fickle, but on days of high pressure there is usually a small window of 2 or 3 hours after sunrise that dawns clear before the clouds in the valley escape from the heat and head to higher elevations.

My batting percentage was nearly flawless. While I did get rained on quite a lot, I managed to make it to the safety of the mountain huts just before the skies opened with fury (except for a soggy stretch on the descent from Shiomi-dake).

We were asked to submit 200 photos from the guidebook, for around 100 would be selected for the final book. Choosing among thousands of photos was an arduous task, and in the end we submitted close to 250, for which around 140 made the final edition of the book.

In addition to submitting the photos by thumb drive, the publisher required a caption list for every single photo, compiled in a Word file in numerical order. We set about making a very general set of captions at first, and then fine-tuned them in the copy edit stage.

The photos you see in this post are from a collection of pictures that did not make the final cut.

 

 

 

This is part of a ongoing series that will take you through the steps of publishing our hiking guidebook

 

Elevation profiles are something that we really wanted to include in the guidebook, but we never really got a definitive answer from the publisher. We decided to include them as part of our manuscript submission anyway, hoping that Cicerone would see the value in including them.

I set off to work, using my GPS data to create the profiles using software on my computer. While we couldn’t use these verbatim, they could potentially be a useful reference guide for the in-house design team. The majority of Japanese hiking guidebooks include these mountain cross sections, and they really do provide an invaluable resource in the planning stages of a hike, especially when you learn how to read them. Novice hikers are unaware that a day of 1000+ vertical elevation gain is a ‘big day’ in the mountains, but experienced hikers can get an idea of the up/down involved without having to read any hike descriptions.

In the end, Cicerone agreed to include elevation profiles for each hike and trek, and all of these needed to be annotated. There ended up being a total of 27 elevation profiles for the final draft of the  book (down from the 30 we initially included with the manuscript). The effort was well worth the labor involved, as you will hopefully see when you finally get your hands on the book.